As part of the strategy to immunize people as quickly and efficiently as possible in Texas, H-E-B, CVS, Kroger and Walgreens make up a significant chunk of companies administering the COVID-19 vaccine.
The problem with the state’s plan is pretty obvious for officials in low-income communities of color: These communities don’t tend to attract a lot of big chain stores.
Manor Mayor Larry Wallace said his suburban community in the eastern part of Travis County is going to have a harder time getting access to the vaccine.
“If we are talking about vaccines are happening in H-E-Bs,” he said, “well, Manor doesn’t have one. If we are talking about they are happening at CVS’s, well, Manor doesn’t have one. At Walgreens, well Manor doesn’t have one. So, therefore Manor will not have that support.”
Manor is increasingly made up of communities of color, as those populations have been economically forced out of Austin’s city limits. During a conference call Monday, Wallace said he thinks the current vaccine distribution plan will force Manor residents to drive farther to get vaccinated.
He called on local and state officials to leave it up to municipalities to figure out how to best distribute the vaccine in their communities.
“These national strategies have no understanding or comprehension of what is on the ground at the municipality level,” he said. “We are not utilizing churches. We are not utilizing schools.”
Advocates in Austin have raised concerns that Black and Latino communities in the eastern enclaves – which have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic – have significantly fewer vaccine providers compared to wealthier communities west of I-35.
City and county leaders in the area say they have little to no control over the situation. State health officials are calling the shots when it comes to who gets the vaccine and when. And, according to the state’s distribution plan for the coming week, private pharmacies will continue to get thousands of doses of the vaccine.
Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson with the Texas Department of State Health Services, said local health departments will play a larger role in COVID-19 vaccinates in the coming months, however.
“We know that local health departments have a real proven track record in vaccinating members of the public,” he said. “Certainly we will be relying on them in the future.”
During a discussion Monday night, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he understands why state and federal officials would lean on these businesses to get the vaccine out. However, he said, this isn’t a good idea in Austin, “where grocery stores and pharmacies are not equitably located” throughout the city.
“We know that we have a history of disparities,” Adler said. “And that has shown up just in terms of the people who are susceptible in even getting the virus and dealing with it. In our community that doesn’t work.”
Stephanie Hayden, the director of Austin Public Health, said so far the state is not letting local public health departments decide where the vaccines should go.
If state officials did give APH a shipment of vaccines, she said, the eastern parts of Austin would be a priority.
“If the state made that decision, we would gladly accept the vaccine and we would get it out to the community,” Hayden said.
Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents parts of East Austin, told KUT she’s frustrated by the lack of information local officials are receiving about the state’s vaccine distribution plans, in general.
But regardless of the state’s plan, she said, the city could have done more to ensure there was equity.
“I am a member of Austin’s governing body and I gotta tell you that I don’t think we have done everything we could have to make certain that we were prepared for what we knew was coming,” Harper-Madison said.
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, APH is not expected to receive a single dose of the vaccine in the state’s week 4 allotment. Instead, various private medical practices and pharmacies at H-E-B, Randall’s and Walgreens will be getting hundreds of doses.
Less wealthy and more racially diverse parts of Travis County are all but left out in the state’s distribution plan that week. Pflugerville, for example, will get only 300 doses of the vaccine and it will go to only one private practice in the city.
Manor has been allotted zero doses for the week.
Adler said he thinks it would be more effective to give APH 1,000 doses of the vaccine, “rather than sending [100 doses] to a physician with a private practice.”
That way, he said, the city could find a centralized place in an eastern part of the city where the vaccine is needed most.
“The only problem right now is that the state is not giving it to us to be able to execute our plan,” Adler said. “They are distributing it differently.”
Van Deusen said the current distribution is just a snapshot in time.
“I wouldn’t want to read too much into any single week,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to compare one provider got this much this week to someone else because it could certainly change in future weeks.”
Adler said Travis County is “lobbying” the state for a change to the system and that he’s hopeful it will consider their concerns.
In a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra also asked that state officials begin prioritizing local health officials as vaccines are distributed.
“Local governments can cut through traditional barriers to public health and efficiently deliver services,” he wrote. “We are the pulse of the local community and can ensure that we are identifying our most vulnerable needs and populations.”